Six months ago, the student affairs team I work with went through the beginning stages of a restructuring process. At the time, we understood the process to be about 2-3 weeks, start to finish. We were implementing a new technique called a “Design Sprint”, so named from Jake Knapp and his Google Ventures team. The sprint, is “Google Ventures unique five-day process for answering crucial questions through prototyping and testing ideas with customers.” It’s a solid process that has been tested time and time again with various types of organizations and vocations. The process is that on Monday, you map out the problem and start by finding a place to focus. Tuesday is spent sketching some different solutions on paper. Wednesday, you do a lot of difficult narrowing and figure out a testable hypothesis. Thursday, you work on a prototype, and Friday, you test it with other people. The process seemed easy enough to understand, and the challenge of doing it in five days was enticing.
By the end of the five days, it felt like we made some progress, but not as much as I think we’d all hoped. At the end of the five days, we had taken all of the different departments in our Student Affairs division and lumped them into three buckets: Spiritual Formation, Sense of Belonging, and Holistic Wellbeing. Essentially, we decided that every student should have some sense of belonging on campus, know that they are being holistically cared for, and be spiritually developed during their time as a student. That was great a start!
The second week was devoted to our VP of Student Affairs taking our “buckets” and making job descriptions and finding people to fill the buckets. What seemed like the easiest part of the task turned out to be the most complex. What was supposed to be one or two weeks, quickly became one to two months, then four to five months and saw us through the change of semesters. Then, last week, over six months after this process had begun. We had concrete answers about what the entirety of our Student Affairs looked liked, what our buckets were, and who was in it.
I think all of us, our VP included, severely underestimated the complexity of the problems we had and I wish I could have given her this book six months ago. Because Berger and Johnston tell us that, “A focus on the possible requires changes in the way we think, engage with others, and take actions. Moving away from our own belief in a predictable world is a major effort indeed.” This book encourages us to understand complexity theory, which can help uncover current systems and how they operate in order to create space for strengthening desired emerging conditions and weakening other emerging areas. This gives way for VUCA in decision-making: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.
The situation we went through in our design sprint couldn’t be more textbook VUCA. Peoples jobs were at stake creating high levels of volatility. The University has been in an academic year of uncertainty. Our Student Affairs department was made up of over seventy-five different people in twelve to fifteen different departments, all working with students in different ways, which adds multiple layers of complexity. And to top it off, we were the first division in the entire university to undergo this design sprint process so there were high levels of ambiguity of how to do it.
I’ve realized in all this complexity that no one walks out unscathed to a certain degree. While I was thankful to receive a significant promotion in this process, I’ve watched others navigate the complexity of losing jobs, demotions, being moved into new departments and more. As I think about leading my own team in a still complex situation, I have to remind myself that as a leader, I need, “a vision that is directional without imposing too much (or too little) constraint on people. And a leader needs a strategy that is clear enough for new actions by open enough to allow the unexpected to emerge. You need a guided process of evolution.”
 John Knapp, John Zeratsky, and Braden Kowitz, Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days, (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2016) 9.
 Ibid., 16
 Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston, Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), 9.
 Ibid., 28.
 Ibid., 8.
 Ibid., 87.